Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd: Case Update

In 2010, we blogged about the then-recent decision in Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., in which a Florence County, South Carolina jury awarded $2.375 million to a young girl burned when the Nissan SUV in which she was riding wrecked; the minor’s seat happened to be situated on top of the gas tank.  Our commentary included the following analysis:

The plaintiff set forth causes of action for strict liability and breach of warranty, arguing that Nissan failed to ensure the crashworthiness of the vehicle because a small metal bracket was likely to puncture the fuel tank in the event of a side collision. The plaintiff reportedly utilized experts from Texas, Utah, California and Japan, among others, to testify to such issues as the alleged foreseeability of the bracket’s puncturing of the fuel tank. Nissan, in turn, argued that the tank rupture was due to the severe and unique circumstances of the collision, which had placed extreme, concentrated energy at the location of the bracket.

The jury apparently was able to overlook two important challenges to the plaintiff’s case: (1) the SUV had complied with all federal standards; and (2) it was the driver of the Nissan Xterra who admittedly was at fault in causing the accident. The plaintiff’s position, according to her attorney, was that if the vehicle had been built according to European standards rather than U.S. standards, whereby the bracket would have been placed no closer than 100 millimeters from the fuel tank, then the fire would not have occurred.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Nissan appealed.  Recently, the South Carolina Court of Appeals took up the case and issued this opinion affirming the jury’s award.  One of the issues on appeal included whether the circuit court erred in denying Nissan’s post-trial motion for JNOV based on the plaintiff’s failure to provide a feasible alternative design as required by Branham v. Ford Motor Company, 390 S.C. 203, 701 S.E.2d 5 (2010).  (See Abnormal Use’s coverage of that case here).

Importantly, the Court of Appeals was tasked in Courtney to determine if Branham applied retroactively, or prospectively only, since Branham came out after the jury’s award in Courtney.  The Court held that Branham did, in fact, apply retroactively, based on principles long-held in South Carolina jurisprudence:

Turning to the instant case, we recognize that in South Carolina, “[t]he general rule regarding retroactive application of judicial decisions is that decisions creating new substantive rights have prospective effect only, whereas decisions creating new remedies to vindicate existing rights are applied retrospectively.”

The Court of Appeals decided that the Courtney case fell into the latter category, since the risk-utility test had been employed in the products liability context for a long time, if not exclusively.  Thus, having decided that Branham applied in this case, the Court then took up the question whether the plaintiff’s alleged failure to provide an alternative design entitled Nissan to JNOV.  The jury determined that the plaintiff failed to prove a feasible alternative design in a post-verdict interrogatory that, according to the Court of Appeals, should never have been put before the jury in the first place, since “[o]ur supreme court has previously held that ‘[i]t is improper in a law case to submit factual issues to a jury in the form of non-binding ‘advisory interrogatories.'” (internal citations and quotations omitted).  Since the interrogatory was not dispositive of liability, it didn’t really matter what the jury found, one way or the other, in the Court’s estimation.  We see this as the Court saying, in essence, “no harm, no foul.” Finding that the jury’s answer to the interrogatory was dispositive of, well, nothing, the Court affirmed the denial of Nissan’s motion for JNOV.

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